Thursday 5 December 2019

Time for young players to take ownership – Murray

Conor Murray believes Ireland's Six Nations victory has increased expectations on the province
Conor Murray believes Ireland's Six Nations victory has increased expectations on the province
David Kelly

David Kelly

Picture the scene – half-time in the 2008 Heineken Cup final between Munster and Toulouse. In a sitting-room in Patrickswell, five young men have been gaping agog at the unfolding drama.

Munster have overcome a sluggish start to strike with a Denis Leamy try, but Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde has just edged the French to 10-6 as the half-time oranges beckon in Cardiff.

Some 250 miles away, an explosion of energy surges through the rapt audience of teenagers; the tension must be supplanted.

In an instant, the oval ball, which, for the previous 40 minutes, the five of them have been unconsciously spinning to the other amidst a slew of excitable expletives, becomes central to a frantic game of its own.

This is their Heineken Cup final. Conor Murray spins the ball wide; it's the perfect pass for the out-half, who evades the flying tackler.

"Try for Munster!" they yell in uproarious unison.

CONOR MURRAY was 19 when Munster won the second – and last – of their European titles. He was close to finishing in the Garryowen Academy then, near enough as be damned to accepting a cherished invite to the Munster Academy.

A little nearer to the dream of one day joining his heroes, of one day playing in a Heineken Cup for real and not as some short-term, synthetic release in his back garden.

In the almost six years since that May day in Patrickswell when he watched Paul O'Connell lift the Heineken Cup, Murray's astonishing and well-documented rise to prominence has allowed him to annex almost every honour the sport can bestow.

A Celtic League crown in 2011. A Lions series win in 2013. A Six Nations title in 2014.

The Heineken Cup remains conspicuous by its absence.

As a manic year winds its way down to the business end on the provincial scene, one could be mistaken for assuming that, given all his success with the Lions and Ireland, the return to European combat represents a step down. It is an assertion that is by some distance removed from the truth. The absence of European honours is the cause.

"No, it's still a huge week," insists the 24-year-old, now clearly one of the more established nines in the world game. "There's huge pressure involved in it. Coming back from the Six Nations, there's even more pressure, because there's a bit more expected of you after that has gone so well.

"We've a lot of young players and I still see myself in that bracket. Over the last couple of years, my knowledge has grown and I know almost exactly what is required to win a game.

"I know what we need to do well and where we need to win the game. It's just an experience thing I've gained over the last couple of years that will help me going into this game.

"Having said that, it's still a huge week. The atmosphere and the pressure involved is huge. It's not as if I have to come down a level in order to pick myself back up again.

"This is massive. It's the Heineken Cup. You know, I didn't always go up to Dublin to watch Ireland in the Six Nations.

"I grew up around the Heineken Cup and watching Munster play. It's really special for me and I'll have no problem getting up for this game."

Last season, at this stage, although O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara were supreme in hauling the side to victory away to Harlequins, Munster's young cohort, particularly Tommy O'Donnell, spoke in the dressing-room before the game as if they were hardy veterans.

Hence, the Munster faithful will be filled with expectations as they approach their cathedral tomorrow, regardless of the visitors' exalted reputation.

"There's a certain level of pressure that goes with a home quarter-final anyway," Murray agrees. "We felt that last year as a group of younger players.

"A few of those younger players spoke before the Harlequins game. We spoke about it being our time now.

"We still do have a few experienced players in our squad who are leading us well. But a few of us younger players need to stand up and take ownership of this team as well. I think we're doing that.

"There will be more pressure for sure, because this time it is a home quarter-final and there is so much more expected of you in front of your home crowd. I think there's a core young group who understand that, who have experience of that and shouldn't fear that."

Murray speaks as impressively and as imperiously as he performs. He has gobbled up a career's worth of experience in the short time since he and his wide-eyed mates flung the ball around with giddy anticipation on that May afternoon in 2008.

"It's a distant memory but special nonetheless," he recalls. "It's going to be a huge occasion again. You can already sense it around the place.

"I was in town yesterday and you just feel the buzz building. Everyone is aware of it. Munster supporters are very knowledgeable.

"They're not just wishing you the best of luck, they're also chatting to you about the game plan and how we're going to play. You just know there's a big game at the end of the week by the way they're interacting with you."

A short walk from Murray's home, you can actually see the gleaming white arches of the stadium.

It was his theatre of dreams back then. And still is now.

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